Preposterous Universe

Monday, September 20, 2004
Provando E Riprovando

Leave it to Umberto Eco to draw together the recurring themes of the humble blog before you. From Arts and Letters Daily, a link to a rumination by Eco on Stephen Hawking's recantation of his previous stance that black hole evaporation destroys information. Eco uses the occasion of Hawking's flip-flop to draw a distinction between science and idealistic philosophy. (Thanks to Norman Graf for the last link.)

It's a distinction well worth drawing. One of the reasons why it's hard to define "science" is that the nature of scientific theories keeps changing, with concurrent debates about what really counts as scientific (e.g., whether entities we can never in principle observe should be part of a respectable scientific theory). But the distinguishing feature of science is not the theories it produces, but the methodology it uses for getting there. Eco labels the crucial feature of this methodology "provando e riprovando," Italian for "try and try again." That is to say, we propose all sorts of ideas, not because we have convinced ourselves that they are right, but because we don't know what is right and we're searching through all of the possibilities. Ultimately, agreement with the data will be the deciding factor, and often we can be very surprised at what kinds of theories come out on top (quantum mechanics being the most notable example.)

This strategy is something that non-scientists have trouble really believing in, even those who rub up against science every day. For example, I have been heavily involved in studying models of dark energy, or more broadly why the universe is accelerating. One idea that received some attention is the possibility that Einstein was wrong, and we have to modify gravity on cosmological scales. In talking to journalists, they would often ask me to explain why my theory was better than the alternatives. I had to explain that I didn't think it was better than the alternatives -- it was interesting and provocative, and it had a chance of being correct, but I didn't necessarily believe that it had a better chance than anything else. We don't only propose ideas we are convinced are right; we propose lots of things and let the chips fall where they may.

Even scientists and other academics don't always quite get the idea. I recall a talk given by an evolutionary psychologist, about the new center he was trying to found. The point of this center, according to his conception, was to demonstrate how important behaviors can find their explanations in the evolution of adaptive strategies. This is a terribly depressing mistake; the point of science is never to "demonstrate" anything, it's to sift through the interesting alternatives and decide which works the best, keeping an open mind at all times. (There is some art, to be sure, in deciding which alternatives are even worth our attention, and at what point a question can be considered to be satisfactorily settled.) If the "physics envy" felt in other disciplines were directed toward this kind of open-minded methodology, rather than to the impressively quantitative final products of physics, the world would be a better place.

It's not a coincidence, of course, that Eco also wrote the article on fascism that I commented about a sort while back. Nor is it a coincidence that scientists are especially riled up by the transgressions of the Bush administration (much more so than their general liberal tilt can explain). The distrust of indecision and ambiguity that is a hallmark of our current administration is an especially anti-scientific attitude. So you see, the science and politics posts here at Preposterous do share deep connections. Still no explanation for the posts about poker.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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